Capable Men of History: Genghis Khan

Mongol leader Genghis Khan (April 16, 1162 – August 18, 1227) was the founder and the first Great Khan Emperor of the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous empire in history. After uniting the nomadic tribes in Mongolia, he conquered vast parts of central Asia and China. After his death, the empire went on to control territories in the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. Many people were slaughtered during the course of his invasions, but he abolished torture, encouraged trade, granted religious freedom, and created the first international postal system. He was a great political statesman, military genius, and a bloodthirsty terror.

Early Life

Born in north central Mongolia, Genghis Khan was originally named “Temujin.” He was the son of Yesukhei, a leader of 40,000 tents or families. Legend has it that he came into the world clutching a blood clot in his right hand, which is a sign that he was destined to be a leader in Mongol folklore. At the time, Mongolia was comprised of different clans and tribal groups. Dozens of nomadic tribes were always fighting and stealing from one another, wherein chiefs had rigorous lives that shared the miseries, hunger, and privations of the people. Childhood for Temujin was violent and unpredictable.

Young Temujin was a member of the Borjigin tribe and a descendant of Khabul Khan, who united Mongols against the Jin Dynasty from Northern China. When he was nine, his father took him to live with the family of his future bride, Borte. Soon after, his father was poisoned to death by an enemy clan.

Temujin returned home to claim his rightful position as the clan chief. However, Temujin’s leadership wasn’t recognized, and his own clan banished him along with his mother and six siblings to avoid having to feed them. In a disagreement over the spoils of a hunting expedition, Temujin quarreled with his half-brother Bekhter and eventually killed him. This made Temujin as the head of his family.

At 16, Temujin married Borte, solidifying the alliance between his and the Konkirat tribe. Borte was then kidnapped by the rival Merkit tribe and given to a chieftain as a wife. Temujin was able to rescue her, and she gave birth soon after to her first son Jochi. Due to Borte’s captivity, doubts were cast over whose the father of Jochi, but Temujin accepted him as his own. Temujin had four children with Borte and many other children with his other wives. However, only his male children with Borte became successors in the family.

Rise to Power

When Temujin was around 20, he was captured in a raid by a former family ally, the Taichi’uts, and was temporarily enslaved. He escaped, thanks to a sympathetic captor, and joined his clansmen and brothers to form a fighting unit. Temujin slowly rose to power by building a large army of more than 20,000 men.

Through a combination of excellent military tactics and merciless brutality, Temujin avenged his father’s murder by killing the Tatar army. He ordered the decimation of every Tatar male who was more than three feet tall. His army also defeated the Taichi’uts using a series of massive cavalry attacks. The Taichi’ut chiefs were all boiled alive.

Temujin went against custom and put competent allies rather than relatives in key positions. He executed leaders of enemy tribes while incorporating the remaining members into his clan. He organized warriors into units of 10 regardless of kin. Though he was an animist, his followers included Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians. By 1205, he had vanquished most of his rivals. The following year, he defeated the powerful Naiman tribe, which gave him control over central and eastern Mongolia.

The brilliant military tactics of Genghis Khan and his understanding of his enemies’ motivations led to the Mongol army’s early success. He employed an extensive spy network and a well-trained army of 80,000 fighters. They were quick to adopt new technologies from enemies and coordinated a sophisticated signaling system of smoke and burning torches. Every soldier was equipped with bow and arrows, a dagger, a shield, and a lasso. The cavalrymen can maneuver a galloping horse using only their legs, leaving their hands free to shoot arrows.

After many significant victories over rival Mongol tribes, other tribal leaders were forced to acknowledge him as a leader. He established a nation similar in size to modern Mongolia and was proclaimed Chinggis Khan, a name that became known in the West as Genghis Khan. This name roughly translated to “universal ruler.” This title carried not only political importance but also spiritual significance. The leading shaman declared Genghis Khan as the representative of the Eternal Blue Sky, the supreme god of the Mongols. Religious tolerance was practiced, but defying the Great Khan is equal to defying the will of God.

Major Conquests

Genghis Khan served as a spiritual inspiration to his armies, but environmental circumstances drove the Mongols as a whole. Food resources were becoming less and less as the population grew. In 1207, he led his armies against the kingdom of Xi Xia. After two years, the enemy was forced to surrender. In 1211, the Mongol armies struck the Jin Dynasty in northern China and were lured by their vast rice fields and easy pickings of wealth. The campaign against the Jin Dynasty lasted for around 20 years.

Genghis Khan’s armies also tried to conquer border empires and the Muslim world. He initially used diplomacy to establish trade relations with the Khwarizm Dynasty, a Turkish empire that included Persia, Afghanistan, and Turkestan that was lead by Shah Muhammad.

However, the Mongol diplomatic mission was attacked by the governor of Otrar, who believed that the caravan was a cover for a spy mission. The governor of Otrar had members of the caravan who came from Mongolia arrested. Genghis Khan then sent a group of three ambassadors to meet the shah himself and demand that the caravan at Otrar be set free, and the governor be handed over to him for punishment. The shah did not only refuse the demand but also sent back the head of the Mongol diplomat in defiance. This act caused a fury that swept through central Asia and into eastern Europe.

In 1219, Genghis Khan took control of the planning and execution of an attack of 200,000 Mongol soldiers against the Khwarizm Dynasty. The Mongol armies swept through every city’s fortifications with unstoppable savagery. No living thing was spared, even children, animals, and livestock. Eventually, the Shah Muhammad and his son were captured and killed, ending the Khwarizm Dynasty in 1221.

After the annihilation of the Khwarizm Dynasty, Genghis Khan turned his attention again east to China. As the Tanguts from Xi Xia had defied his orders to contribute troops to the Khwarizm campaign and were in revolt, Genghis Khan defeated the enemy armies in Tangut cities and sacked the capital of Ning Hia. The Tangut officials surrendered one after another, but Genghis Khan was not contented with that. He wanted revenge for the Tangut betrayal, so he ordered the execution of the imperial family, ending the Tangut lineage.


In the midst of the campaign against the Tangut people, Genghis Khan died apparently of natural causes in 1227. The exact cause of death is unknown – some historians contend that he fell off a horse while on a hunt and died of injuries and fatigue, while others contend that he died of respiratory disease. His body was returned to Mongolia, and his tomb was said to be relatively modest for a leader of his stature. The exact location of his tomb remains unknown until today.

Genghis Khan conquered more than twice as much land as any other person in history, bringing the Western and Eastern civilizations in contact during the process. His descendants continued to conquer lands, including his son Ogedei, who controlled most of eastern Asia, including China. Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson was eventually made the Great Khan and emperor of China’s Yuan Dynasty.

The Mongols were prolific conquerors who took control of the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the rest of China. It even reached Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Syria, and Poland. They invaded Japan and Java before their empire broke apart in the 14th century. Genghis Khan’s last ruling descendant was overthrown in 1920.